Updated: May 6
Epictetus (55-135 CE): a Greek/Roman philosopher and perhaps the most influential teacher of the Stoicism school. Not bad for someone who started life as a crippled slave, was subsequently expelled from Rome, and never wrote a word. Academics know of him through two volumes composed by his student Arrian - The Discourses and The Enchiroden (aka 'Handbook'). A wider audience found him at the start of the C20th through The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, a sort of greatest hits compilation. And in the same way that virtually everyone knows Shakespeare’s “To or not to be, that is the question”, Epictetus is known for one particular aphorism: “Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.” And so it sits at the heart of sales practice, people management training and motivational posters everywhere (mis-attributing to Socrates, Diogenes, Plutarch, James 1:19, Jonathan Swift, and basset hounds). Listen twice as much as you talk. That’s all there is to it. “Easy for Epictetus 2000 years ago. No spreadsheets, no webinars, no High Performing Team reviews, no territory-adjusted quarterly targets. With so little to talk about, it must have no effort to be quiet and let someone else witter on about his goats or her olive crop. “But today!? There’s so much knowledge to convey, so much information to share, so much direction to give. While the other guy is speaking, I’ve got to get mine over and I’m in a hurry.” As Epictetus knew, listening is not mentally juggling to form a next sentence and look for a gap in the conversation to make a winning observation. Listening is more than waiting for a turn to speak.
Listening is showing your interest in what the other is saying and then thoughtfully replying. And that’s hard if you’re thinking about what s/he said 10 minutes ago. Or earlier today. Or yesterday. Or twenty years ago. And thinking about how you should handle it now. Emotionally tinged thoughts arise, which means again that we’re not listening. Mark Epstein - Buddhist and psychotherapist - makes the point in his Thoughts without a Thinker: “Instead of running from difficult emotions, the practice of bare attention becomes able to contain the reaction; making space for it, not completely identifying with it.” Bare attention. That’s the basis for listening According to Epstein, the paradox of bare attention is that in this acceptance is a simultaneously letting go. Simply listening is at once completely natural and enormously difficult. There is so much going on in our minds. PRACTICE Find a ticking clock, one with a hand marking time in seconds.
Focus your awareness on that sound, and the second hand as it sweeps or steps around the face. Note the start place and follow it through 360 degrees. If your attention shifts - perhaps to the maker’s name on the face, the Roman numerals, or to your seat position or to the sound outside - then bring it back to the second hand and start the 1-minute sweep again. 60 seconds. No time at all, even in a busy day. There are no words to be understood, no emotional tones to be interpreted, no physical signals to be read. Just quiet your mind and notice what happens: perhaps it switches off the internal radio playing in the background; perhaps it presses pause, and turns up the mental microphone. Perhaps, suspending finds the point of view of the other person. "The question at stake," said Epictetus, "is no common one; it is this: Are we in our senses, or are we not?" (Golden Sayings #74)
Coachaiku: 17-syllable reflections, in a 5-7-5 form, for personal and professional development.
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